Lose Stress, Lose Weight

Sarah, a long-standing patient of mine was baffled. Despite eating well and exercising she had put on thirty pounds in the past two years, mostly around her midsection. In addition she was tired and achy, had poor sleep and worsening memory and concentration. And she was only thirty years old. The one thing that had changed in her life was a difficult divorce leading to on going stress with her ex husband and their two children.

Sarah is not alone in joining the ranks of the obese. Obesity is an epidemic that is sweeping the developed world. Excess weight is not only a risk for diabetes and heart disease, but recent research has shown obesity associated with increased cancer incidence and worse outcomes in those with cancer. Dietary habits are strongly linked to this new health challenge, especially the use of high glycemic foods (those that spike blood sugar), excess calories (supersized meals) and fats that stimulate inflammation (trans fats, baked goods, red meat and whole dairy not organically produced).  One common thread in all these dietary indiscretions is the effect on blood chemistry including elevating cortisol levels, the main stress hormone from the adrenal gland. (see The Adaptation Diet for more info.)However, as Sarah now knows, it is not diet alone that raises cortisol and increases the risk for obesity and disease. The other major trigger is chronic stress.

Cortisol is essential for life, without it survival would be impossible.  It is the main way we respond to any stress mobilizing energy through release of fatty acids, raising blood sugar, moving blood from the digestive system to the muscles. In addition cortisol suppresses the immune system, reduces inflammation and decreases sex hormone production. It is catabolic, breaking down muscle for energy. All these changes help survival, and normally after the stress is resolved, cortisol returns to baseline levels.

However, the stress we experience today and that experienced by our ancestors  and to which our body’s response is geared are different. In past generations stressful events were about survival: you either caught lunch or you were lunch. Today, whether the stress is a boss who does not respect you, a sick family member, a difficult relationship, or dealing with the onslaught of stimulation and lack of quiet time, the cortisol response does not resolve as it does after a fight or flight response.  Elevated cortisol continues to change the body and is associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and increased cancer risks. This is what happened to Sarah.

To gain control over the stress response, Sarah used the information from Power of the Five Elements to understand her Adaptation Type. She learned that the anger and frustration she was carrying was so difficult to let go of because  she was a Wood Adaptation Type who has a very hard time with forgiveness and patience. Once she was able to see her behavior through this ‘map’. she followed exercises to enhance her ability to forgive and reduced her cortisol and eventually lost the extra pounds as well as learning to feel better about herself.

Forgiveness and Health

One reason I wrote Power of the Five Elements was to bring to light some startling new research on the effects of long term stress on health. Bruce McEwen and other researchers found that once someone has been exposed to chronic  stress the brain actually resets the amount of stress hormone secreted. This leads to possible serious consequences such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The price one pays to adapt to stress is called allostatic load, something to avoid at all costs.

Luckily certain innate or acquired attitudes and behaviors such as forgiveness, leads to lower stress hormones and less damage to the body. In one study researchers measured  blood pressure and heart rate of seventy-one college students while they were thinking of times they had been lied to, insulted, or betrayed by family member. When they imagined forgiving the people who had wronged them, their blood pressure and pulse rate dropped dramatically.

By following these behavioral tips, it is possible to reduce the risk of chronic disease.